“All of the sacred places of India and all of her sacred waters are here. All of the Gods reside here, attracted by the brilliance of the City of Light” – Diana Eck, Banaras
This place is Varanasi
Sitting down and recalling my adventure in that Holy city, I can really say that the city stole my heart from the first sight. It made me rethink my existence in this life and put me in an extreme sceptical mood. Without any doubt, Varanasi, up to now, is the only place that left me speechless and shocked. In my opinion, if you haven’t visit Varanasi, you haven’t visited India. Honestly, you haven’t seen anything. When you step on Varanasi you will understand why.
There isn’t any middle opinion for the Holy city. Either you will Love it or hate it.
And…with the both options, it will hunt you forever.
“Varanasi is a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh dating to the 11th century B.C. Regarded as the spiritual capital of India, the city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River’s sacred waters and perform funeral rites (Burning Ghats) Along the city’s winding streets are some 2,000 temples. Kashi Vishwanath, the “Golden Temple,” dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, It is known as Benares, Banaras or Kashi”. (source Wikipedia).
We first came to Varanasi through our travels around India and with very little idea about the city other that supposed to be interesting. Looking back over my notes from those days I notice the shock and exhaustion from our train journey. We arrive very early in the morning, where we meet our driver. Whizzing rickshaw rides, ears resounding with the blasts of car horns, mind spinning with the traffic, crush of rubbish and dirt, dirt, dirt, way too much of dirt. Despite the fact that I have previously visited India Varanasi blew my mind and I was literally in shock.
Within an hour we find our hotel: A dirty room at the top of an ugly yellow concrete building on the edge of the Assi Ghat with the view to the Ganges river. Our tour guide warned us that the majority of the hotels close to the river are not well maintained. My sister though insisted on staying as close as possible to the river. The view rewarded us, it was breathtaking indeed! Soon we discovered that the place is full of monkeys. The hotel owner warned that those animals can be really cheeky.
- If you prefer a cleaner and in good condition hotel you better stay outside the Ghats area.
- Be aware of the monkeys, they are everywhere.
1. Stroll around Ghats
We began our exploration of the city. There are 88 Ghats which means stairs that are basically lead down to the Ganges river. As we start to walk along the Main Ghat, we fell, in fact, as we are walking through a gallery of life and death. It is worth to note that despite the fact that the river is the Holiest river for Hindus it also the most contaminated. The new Prime Minister of India, Modi, has actually budgeted $340 million dollars to clean up the Ganges. So there is some hope.
As we drew close, we observed hundreds of people performing their morning rituals, washing clothes bathing and exercising the art of yoga, all inside the river in order to wash away their sins. We could hear the distant sounds of chanting and we could feel the calmness of the place. In that early morning silence, everything about this place was alien to me. People have been living here for 5000 years and it is the world’s oldest inhabited city. In fact, it seems that very little changed from the old times.
2. Food time
It’s almost lunchtime and we are already starving. Close the Assi Ghat B, Vaatika Cafe seems to have the best pizza and apple pie in the whole city. In fact, pizza and apple pie were a nice relief to our crumbling stomachs. There are numerous restaurants around the city including street food. We avoided street food for obvious reasons. A nice restaurant that we did not try but I heard good opinions is the Organic Bakery Bread Brown which has vegan dishes also. (Not Sponsored)
- Vaatika Cafe opening hours daily: 8 am – 10 pm
- Bakery Bread Brown opening hours daily: 7 am – 10 pm
3. Alleyways & Markets
After the ceremony, we continue our walk through the Alleyways. Here you can find a huge area of markets. Within couples of minutes, the scene here will be one of utter chaos. Crowded alleyways, dirt everywhere, dead cows, cow poop that you are about to step in at some point, monkeys, dogs, flies, dead bodies carried through without any alarm. Indeed, death is everywhere in the city.
‘Everything ends in this city’ said our tour guide. Hindus believe that after death, the body returns to the spirit. We do not belong to the body, we are not our minds…..A true Hindu believer must end his / her life to this city.
The next couples of hours we roami around the Markets bargaining at the numerous shops and chatting with people. Everywhere you could see lots of colours and smiles, lots of smiles. We liked the women with their colourful saris and vendors with their merchandises stacked on the small alleyways.
- You can visit the Alleyways and the Markets any time of the time but it’s preferably after dawn because of the heat.
- Do not forget to bargain.
- The markets in Varanasi are famous for its silk and ornate jewels
4. Aarti Ceremony (Evening Prayers to the Ganges)
There is a theory that if you yearn sincerely for a unique experience in Varanasi, you will find one.
Aarti singers perform the evening ceremony at Sitala Ghat. Varanasi is sacred. They perform Aarti in sacred cities. Thousands of locals and tourists are around the Ghat (stairs) or inside the boats offering flowers and magnolia candles on the river. Fire is offered to Lord Shiva and people pray to get blessed, it represents the link between this world and the spirit world.
I am sitting close to the singers and I can feel every vibe of the atmosphere. The chant is a lament, an attempt at gratitude. I’m trying to mimic the voices of the lead singers, thinking that people come here to pray and around the corner, people come here to die and I can’t hold my tears. The ceremony is pure magic.
It is one of the most spectacular spiritual night I have ever experienced. Do not miss it!
- Aarti Ceremony starts every day at 6 – 7 pm
- To experience the best ceremony is at Dasaswamedh Ghat
- You can watch the ceremony from the boats or from the Ghats
5. Sunrise in Varanasi & Burning Ghats
Like so many travellers we went to see the sunrise along the river and the Burning Ghats. At 5 am we walk down to the riverfront where we rented a boatman. We are 6 of us (including the boatman) in a pretty small boat. Our tour guide informed us that if we are “lucky” we will see a burning. We’ve got goosebumps all over our bodies and my heart starts pumping too hard.
The first sunbeams it begins to appear and a magical picture like a postcard begins to reveal its beauty. We are in the middle of the river and the view of the Holy city and the sun is like we stepped into another century. We sat quietly for a quite some time.
Further downstream we moved across other tourist boats until we reach a burning Ghat. It was garbage and crap everywhere and there was a dead cow floating in the middle of the river. We smelled the smoke in the air, a different smell than usual, a smell that up to now comes back into my mind.’You are really lucky. There is a burning happening now’, said our tour guide. As a matter of fact, he is right, the cremation is just in front of us of around 300 meters far.
We felt the tremulous thrill and we stared with open wide eyes. A body wrapped tightly in a white cloth is under a pile of woods and fire. In fact, we could see his feet burning. Into this great destitution, a man was bathing nearby our boat and water splashed onto me. I freaked out!!! I felt like I had a heart attack. Thinking that all the ashes from the burned bodies end to the river my heart stopped for seconds and could not breathe. After seconds I let a scream come out and seconds later l let the words sink in.
The belief is that if you are burned on the bank of the Ganges and in Varanasi specifically, and they throw your ashes into the river that you will achieve a level of Moksha. It means that you will break the cycle of birth and rebirth, you will go to heaven, in the Hindu religion.
It’s worth to mention that during ceremonies you will not observe tears as with tears the soul is prevented from leaving the body. Some see death as a redemption from the sufferings of life as they expect something better in their next life.
- Best time for the boat ride is between 5 am – 7 am.
- Negotiate for the best price with the boatman.
- If you want to see the burning from the Ghats you need a special permission.
6. Tour of Sarnath
It was shortly after an afternoon when we went from Sightseeing to the Sarnath. Despite the fact that Varanasi is a Hindu place, it has Buddhist temples also. It is a big park with temples and it’s the place where Buddha first taught about Dharma.
- It’s a nice place to have a picnic.
- Sarnath is 10km away from Varanasi and has various Buddhist temples and an Archaeological Museum.
- There are various days trips to Sarnath start early in the morning but you can also spend half day as we did it.
The universality of death here is really shocking but it is very normal in Varanasi.
I will never forget my first sight of the Holy City and I loved every vibe of it. If a city could be condensed into a small phrase, the one that might work pretty well for is ‘Hovering between Life and Death’
Do you wish to read more? Then check these amazing tips from Sabine –> Travel tips Varanasi
This documentary is the best I have seen about Varanasi and it is featuring one of my favourite Photographers Joey L
Favourite book about Varanasi: Kaleidoscope City: A Year in Varanasi
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